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Farewell to Gorbachev

Farewell to Gorbachev
Honour guards stand by the coffin of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, during a memorial service at the Column Hall of the House of Unions in Moscow, Russia. (Reuters)

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MOSCOW – Thousands of Russians filed past the open casket of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, on Saturda, with many saying they wanted to honour his memory as “a peacemaker” who dismantled totalitarianism and gave them their freedom.

Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union from 1985-1991, died on Tuesday aged 91. His body lay in state in the grand Hall of Columns in central Moscow in the tradition of previous Soviet leaders, including Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin.

The man affectionately known as ‘Gorby’ in the West and who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for his role in ending the Cold War was then buried at Moscow’s famous Novodevichy cemetery alongside his wife Raisa, who died in 1999.

Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of the Novaya Gazeta newspaper and himself a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, headed a column of mourners carrying a portrait of his friend.

A priest read a short prayer before a military band played the Russian national anthem, which has the same melody as the Soviet anthem, as Gorbachev’s coffin was lowered into the ground. An honour guard fired three shots into the air.

Earlier, flanked by two rifle-wielding members of the elite Kremlin Regiment and with the hall’s 54 chandeliers emitting only a dim glow, the former president’s body lay in an open casket with his face and upper body visible.

His daughter Irina and her two daughters sat nearby.

Russians of all ages filed through the hall and laid flowers on a plinth at the foot of the casket and stole a brief and final glance as sombre music played and a giant black and white portrait of Gorbachev looked down from the wall.

Best known in the West for helping end the Cold War, reducing his country’s nuclear stockpile, and for unwittingly presiding over the demise of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev’s legacy still divides opinion inside and outside Russia.

But those who lined up to say farewell recalled the late politician, who died in Moscow after an unspecified illness, with gratitude.

“He was a peacemaker, he was one of God’s sons,” said Tatiana, 80, who said she had come despite poor health.

“He wanted to give us democracy and freedom and we turned out to not be very ready yet,” said Alexander Lebedev, a tycoon and close friend.

“That’s most unfortunate but we will still be a European country. This part of history will be over one day.”

President Vladimir Putin paid his respects to Gorbachev on Thursday, but stayed away from Saturday’s memorial event with the Kremlin citing his busy schedule.

Nor was Gorbachev granted a state funeral unlike his nemesis Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first post-Soviet president and the man who named Putin as his successor, who died in 2007.

Some saw Putin’s no-show as a snub from a former KGB officer who has rolled back many of Gorbachev’s reforms and has said he regards the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century that he would reverse if given a chance. (Reuters)